In memory of John Straiton

Gary Gray remembers the late ad vet who helped change the creative structure at Ogilvy and sparked a rivalry between offices.

Straiton (retouch glasses) & Gary copy
John Straiton passed away on March 16, 2019 at the age of 96, having left his mark on the advertising industry at agencies Young & Rubicam and Ogilvy & Mather. He began as a copywriter for Y&R in the late ’40s, rising through the ranks to later become the creative director and VP at the shop. In 1961, Straiton moved to Ogilvy to become its CD, and was named president in 1966 and later chairman and CEO in 1973. He retired from advertising in 1974, and went on to work at the Dept. of Energy, Mines and Resources for the last two years of his working life. 
His colleague and life-long friend Gary Gray takes us down memory lane, sharing Straiton’s biggest achievements and contributions to the biz. 

We lost a giant. I lost a mentor.

In 1962, I sent a Hathaway-style ad to John Straiton, creative director at the then-newly formed Ogilvy, Benson & Mather.

It was a large shot of me wearing the shirt-maker’s eye-patch from the iconic Ogilvy ad, with some copy under it declaring my eagerness. A week later I got a response from him and all it said was “Hate the font. Call me.” I did call him and made an appointment. Standing in front of his desk he picked up three objects and for each named a medium: Print, Radio, TV. I left did what he asked and delivered them the next week.

I waited until I just had to call him. His amazing gate-keeper, Norm Cody, answered the phone. “I can see he is on the phone. Do you want to hold?” I did and later she came back on: “Sorry, but he’s still on the phone.” At that exact moment our agency’s receptionist came roaring into my office and yelled, “Hang up, now!” I did and the phone rang, “I’ve been holding for ages waiting to offer you a job!”

Only John Straiton would have been crazy enough to hire an agency film producer to become a writer.

Bet you didn’t know…

John Straiton’s biggest industry achievement was in helping to change the internal structure of creative departments.

In the early ’60s, Canadian ad agencies not only had a “typing pool” (a group of secretaries assisting execs) for both account and creative departments, but also a pool of artists to draw the ads for the writers. But for Ogilvy Toronto, John Straiton was one of the first in Canada to create a writer and art director team assigned to a specific account. Later he added TV producers to the teams. (I had two gems, Leslie Parrott and later Louise DeLelise.) Every rough ad went to both John and our President Andrew Kershaw. My other mentor.

John was an excellent artist and filmmaker. He owned a 16mm Bolex and one of his stop-motion films, Leda and the Swan, won the top prize at Cannes in its category.

During our pitch for the Campbell Soup account he decided to put his TV campaign ideas onto film instead of storyboards. So, he had to waive his dictum that I would only work in print for two years because he needed me to edit his shots together. (Note 16mm required you to edit it by hand, scraping off the emulsion on one side and literally gluing the shiny side to the scraped side. The rule of thumb for it to stick was one puff of a cigarette.)

We won the Campbell account and one of John’s commercials “31 Kinds” was shot professionally and the first to air. It had the amazing Jack Crealy singing all the names of the soups in a Gilbert and Sullivan-style way. Ogilvy NY had been courting Campbell’s for years and this set up competitiveness between Ogilvy NY and Ogilvy TO. I happily led the charge. My treatment, as an ignorant Canadian, on visits to the NY office led to an agreement that I would never work on an account assigned to the NY office.

David Ogilvy started his agency with a bang. He told the world he would not accept any tobacco account. So in a new business meeting John and Andrew were asked by the potential client, “Where do you guys draw the line between accepting Whisky advertising but not Tobacco?” Instantly, John responded with “Right between the two!”

It wasn’t the creative guy from Kapuskasing’s tallness that made him formidable, but also the speed of his ideas, commitment to logic, wit and loud guffaws. He was that very rare creative ad guy: a brilliant writer who could visualize the end product. Yes, it was a golden time that will never come again, but somehow we must log those times and builders of our industry.

John was a giant who was never selected for a Special Recognition Award, but if you worked with him, you’d want to show him that level of respect.

John, thanks for making me the 36th Ogilvy employee.

Luvya, g

Gary Gray is a communication consultant and executive film producer (alongside his partner Ron Bremner) at Tailored Ideas.